Train Travel Tips, Japan

I didn’t think it was possible to get so excited about public transport. The first time I saw a shinkansen (or ‘bullet train’) I definitely felt a buzz I thought was reserved for trainspotters (or Tetsu). I’ll never forget the toe-curling terror that shot through me when I first heard one pass me going non-stop through a station (I never saw it – it probably passed through 10 minutes prior). Then there’s the panic of getting onto one as part of a tour group with inconvenient baggage, before it speeds off again to keep to the perfect timing we associate with Japanese transport. None of this compares to how I felt on my first day trying to do navigate a station and get on the right train on my own. Why should this be difficult? It isn’t really, but if anyone does find themselves in a similar panick-stricken state, holding themselves up by a vending machine on a misc Japanese train platform, here are my travel tips for japan:

Reserve seats

Unless you’re ok with standing, this is the way to go on many lines, as you won’t be guaranteed a seat otherwise. Assuming you’re doing this with a JR Railpass, you just go to a Travel Service Center or a Reservation Office (Midori-no-madoguchi) at a JR station, or to the sales office of a JR-associated travel agency. Flash your pass, tell them where you’re going and they’re super efficient. Of course. It’s free too!


Carriage numbers

This really confused me. I thought I had it all nailed, with my jazzy reservation and luke-warm Boss in hand… till I looked down.


First up, if you’re looking at numbers above 1–5 then you’re likely to be on the right track. Literally. These are the carriages for reserved seats. Next it’s working out which train yours is, which is given away by the number of carriages (the little numbers). I looked at the departures board, and tears welled:


It’s ok! The scary characters soon switched to a more helpful screen.


My Yamabiko 129 had 17 carriages, so I was pretty sure that meant the red box on the floor was my territory. And boom! The train came, I got to my seat and enjoyed the comedy of Japanese products for ageing men.